Hey, social media marketers: we see you. We know that on any given day, you’re putting a ton of care, attention and tact into your social media messages. But we also know that when a major crisis or emergency hits, the pressure you face is even higher. Social media crisis communication requires a steady hand and an empathetic ear.

In this post, we’re looking at social media best practices during a real-world crisis or emergency. To be clear, these are tactics for challenging times. That means things like earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, massacres, pandemics, and economic collapse. If you’re looking for information on social media PR crisis management, find that info here.

Today, real-world catastrophes play out on social media in real time. Social media professionals help audiences and communities come through hardship together. But what should your brand say when the facts and the future are uncertain? And how should you say it when new developments are coming in by the hour or minute?

It sounds complicated, we know. But it actually comes down to one simple question: How can you help?

Read on for our complete guide to social media crisis communication, including a social media crisis management plan example to help you build your own policy.

Bonus: Get a free, customizable social media policy template to quickly and easily create guidelines for your company and employees.

The role of social media in crisis communications

We live in a world where 53% of Americans get their news from social media. It’s where many of us (particularly the under-30 set) expect to find breaking news first. These platforms also deliver accounts that shape narratives and impact perceptions — for better or for worse.

These days, social media channels have become an important information source. The average person spends 147 minutes a day on apps like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Social media has even shaped where traditional news journalists get their information.

So, when the world’s in a tailspin, what role does social media play in a crisis communications plan?

During a crisis, social media can help brands:

  • Communicate critical updates to your audience in real time;
  • Prevent the spread of misinformation by amplifying official messages;
  • Provide direct assistance (when possible) to people who need help or information;
  • Monitor online sentiment to better understand what people need from your organization;
  • Mobilize resources and support to connect those in need with those who can help;
  • Evaluate your outreach efforts and note trends and sources of misinformation for the next crisis

Social media is an important channel for sharing urgent news and updates. If you need to reassure your audience or explain your response to a crisis, you use social.

Some marketing teams work at the center of a crisis, like government social media teams or health care professionals. Social platforms help them get authoritative information to the population, fast.

Social media isn’t only for those in the heart of a crisis, though. It allows people to connect and make sense of tragedy. It’s also where you find out how you can help and, often, roll up your sleeves and get to work.

In other words: brands can’t ignore these conversations. But participation must be approached with care.

Whenever we face a crisis, we hope that after it passes, we’ll come out changed for the better. On social media, that means building long-term trust and connection with our audience.

What does that look like? Here are our tips.

Tips for communicating on social media during a crisis or emergency

Have a social media policy in place before disaster strikes

We can’t predict crises, but we can be prepared for them. An official social media policy can help you know the best, most effective way to respond.

Document your communication strategies and outline a social media crisis plan well in advance.

A good policy will provide a solid but flexible response process. It will also compile all the crucial internal information you need to move forward.

It’s a helpful document to have if the crisis is particularly close to home. If some of your team members are affected by the crisis, they’ll be able to share duties with non-team members.

Make sure your social media policy includes the following:

  • An up-to-date emergency contact list. Not just your social media team but legal advisors and executive decision-makers, too.
  • Guidance on accessing social account credentials. Where is that information, and how can someone find it?
  • Guidelines for identifying the scope of the crisis (i.e., is it global or local, does it affect your operations, does it affect your customers, and to what extent?).
  • An internal communication plan for employees.
  • An approval process for your response strategy.

Review—and possibly pause—your upcoming social calendar

Context shifts fast in a crisis, and brands are right to be cautious.

For instance, “finger-lickin’ good” may not be appropriate to say in the middle of a pandemic. At best, you might seem insensitive. At worst, inappropriate messaging could endanger lives.

If you’re using a social media scheduler, you’ll want to press pause on any upcoming posts. Have faith that all the hard work that went into your perfect National Donut Day post isn’t wasted. It’s just postponed.

With Hootsuite, pausing your scheduled social media content is simple. Just click the pause symbol on your organization’s profile and enter a reason for the suspension.

pause scheduled content on hootsuite during social media crisis communication

This will keep all posts from publishing until you decide it is safe to resume. It’ll also warn users that a publishing suspension is in effect.

Have a tiger team in place

What’s a tiger team? A pack of ferocious specialists that assemble to work on a specific problem or goal. In the middle of an emergency or crisis, your existing social team might adjust or call in extra support.

Identify the people who are best suited for these roles. Then, outline their responsibilities so that everyone can own their mission and act. Tasks to assign to your response team include:

  • Posting updates
  • Answering questions and handling customer support
  • Monitoring the wider conversation, and flagging important developments
  • Fact-checking information and/or correcting rumors

It’s also helpful to have people clearly responsible for:

  • Strategizing for the medium-term (not just day-to-day)
  • Coordinating/communicating with other teams. This can include external stakeholders and the rest of the organization.

Communicate with honesty, openness, and compassion

At the end of the day, honesty, compassion and humanity will win out. Build trust by being transparent about issues you’re struggling with — or responsible for.

Provide accurate, timely, and honest information to establish trust with your audience. Admit when you don’t have all the answers and keep the public updated as new information becomes available.

It’s also important to prioritize essential information. Focus on sharing the most critical and relevant information first, such as evacuation orders, emergency contact numbers, or shelter locations.

Make sure employees are aware of your position

Communications begin at home. When your organization moves forward, you’ll need your employees on board.

If you’re announcing relief efforts or donations, employees can help spread the word through an employee advocacy program. This is also a good time to remind them of your organization’s social media guidelines for employees. (Make sure you’ve included any crisis-specific amendments)

Your brand may be in a tense position because of the crisis (layoffs, backlash, etc.), too. Be ready for employees to express their feelings on social. Just make sure all of your employees are aware of the commitment they’ve made in their social media policy to not disclose private company info on social media.

Sometimes it’s impossible to get everyone pulling towards the same goal. In this case, social listening can help you understand your employees’ concerns better.

Cite only credible sources

Platforms, governments, and brands have doubled down on resisting misinformation on social. In a crisis, it’s even more important to be vigilant about the truth. In times like these, bad information doesn’t just damage reputations. It can be outright dangerous.

Social platforms may implement broader protective policies during a crisis, but don’t rely on that alone. Check your facts before sharing false claims with your audience.

And if, in the heat of the moment, you erroneously share misinformation, own the mistake right away. Most likely, your audience will tell you.

Use social media monitoring/listening

Your social media team may have been the first to hear about the crisis, whether local or global. It’s just the nature of the job.

If your social listening strategy is optimized, your team can watch audience sentiment around your brand. They can also track what’s happening with your competitors and industry at large. How are similar organizations responding to the emergency? And how are their customers responding to their response?

Do you need to craft content around your relief efforts or new operational policies? Does your customer service team need to ramp up fast?

These are just a few of the questions social listening can help answer. It’s a direct line to what your audience needs from you, so tap in.

Post-crisis, your listening tool can help you evaluate how your audience responded to your crisis communications efforts. Did people respond well? Or were they confused or angry with your organization? Has sentiment for your organization increased or decreased after the crisis? How are people talking about your organization on social now? Report your findings to relevant stakeholders.

Social listening tools like Hootsuite make it easy to track conversations on social. Check out the video below for an overview of the platform’s listening capabilities.

Avoid “trend-jacking” or activities that appear profit-driven

Whatever you do: don’t attempt to “spin” a crisis.

This can be a tough line to pin down. If a post seems showy or calculated, it can damage your relationship with your customers.

We’ve seen so many brands burned by being opportunistic or even appearing opportunistic. Coy teaser strategies just don’t work in an emergency situation. Neither does bragging.

Avoid damaging your brand’s reputation on social media when a crisis occurs. Do what’s right and do it with humility.

Leave room for questions

People will have questions. Be clear on the best way for them to reach you. You don’t have to be facing a flood of panicked inquiries. Just take the time to engage, answer questions, and provide reassurance.

Don’t disappear

A pause may be necessary while you strategize. But — and this goes triple if your brand is close to the crisis — radio silence is not a long-term strategy. Things move fast in the first 24 hours, but you’ll be in a better position to respond rapidly if you’ve got an action plan in place.

Learn from your experience

Your work isn’t over when the immediate danger is. Post-crisis, prioritize taking time to study your response and create a social media crisis management plan that incorporates your learnings for next time.

Analyze how your team handled the crisis, including the effectiveness of your communication strategies on social media, the timeliness of your response, and the level of collaboration among team members.

Based on the evaluation, identify any challenges your team encountered, or things that didn’t go well. You can use this information to update your crisis communication plan with ideas for overcoming them in the future.

And even after resuming regular publishing, continue to engage with your audience. You’ll want to make sure to address any lingering questions or concerns they may have about the crisis.

How to do crisis management on social media: examples

Need a little inspiration? We’ve collected some prime examples of how brands have dealt with crises and emergencies on social media.

When the markets crashed, WealthSimple stepped in. They provided a calm explainer (via carousel) to help ease followers’ financial worries.​


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A post shared by Wealthsimple (@wealthsimple)

After the latest school shooting in the U.S., business magazine Fast Company took to social media. They helped direct readers to opportunities to support gun control.


Science Up First, a non-profit initiative of the Canadian Association of Science Centres, breaks down science misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Bank of Queensland jumped onto social in the wake of severe flooding. In crystal-clear language, they shared how they would support clients in the days to come.

It’s not just big brands, either. The role of social media in local government crisis communications is just as important. When heavy rains took out a highway in British Columbia, the local government used social media to share updates on road conditions.

After wildfires devastated Flagstaff, the Museum of Northern Arizona pivoted its usual content. They shared a somber sympathy message and offered the organization’s support for the victims.

You can’t predict when disaster will strike, but you can help your audience prepare for the worst. Here, the National Weather Service educates their audience in advance of an emergency.

Each of these examples communicates an urgent message with tact and efficiency. Remember, the most important question to ask yourself is still: how can you help?

Social media crisis communications plan template

Get a social media crisis communications plan in place while everything is business-as-usual. That way, you’ll be able to jump into action ASAP when life goes sideways. We’re here to help you get started with a crisis communication plan template for social media.

Assess potential crises

Time for a (dark) brainstorm. What possible situations could impact the world and your business? This could mean anything from a new wave of the pandemic to a tragic violent event in your community. Think about any potential disasters you may need to comment on.

Potential questions and responses

What will your followers need to know in a crisis? You can’t predict every angle, but brainstorming responses will give you a head start.

Posting outlets and schedules

When something awful or unexpected occurs, where will you respond… and when? Make a list of all your relevant social media platforms. Include how quickly (or how often) to post to each in the event of a global or community emergency. It may also be helpful to share login information here or who has access to these accounts.

Task assignments

Who handles what? Is one person handling everything from content creation to social listening? Or are you going to divvy the work up among a few key players?

Key stakeholders

Consider this your emergency contact sheet. Jot down the names, positions and contact info of everyone who needs to be in the loop regarding your social media content during a crisis.

Guidelines for social media

Do you have any rules or best practices for your posts during a crisis? What’s the right tone? Are emojis appropriate or a no-no? What is your policy on responding to negative comments or feedback? Deciding on best practices before a crisis will help your team know how to proceed.

Use Hootsuite to respond quickly to any emergency situation on all your social media accounts. Pause upcoming content, monitor the conversation, and analyze your efforts from one dashboard. Try it free today.

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